New Podcast Episode, Featuring Cristina Bicchieri

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, Nils Köbis interviews University of Pennsylvania Professor Cristina Bicchieri about her interdisciplinary work on corruption and anticorruption, which addresses a range of questions including why corruption can be so “sticky,” the role of social norms in shaping corrupt or non-corrupt behavior, how and why perceptions and attitudes toward corruption may differ between men and women, and what the implications of social norm theory are for effective anticorruption strategy.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Preserving Electoral Integrity Without Disenfranchising the Poor: Suggestions for Improving a Voter Residence Verification System in Colombia

Vote-buying—a particularly corrosive form of political corruption—is present in many jurisdictions, especially in the Global South. And not only is vote-buying itself a form of corruption, but the practice exacerbates other forms of corruption, because politicians need to raise enough money to buy enough votes to beat their opponents (who are also engaged in vote-buying), and in order to raise enough money, politicians often enter into deals with private parties who (illegally) “lend” the politician the money he or she needs to buy enough votes to win the election, and then, once in office, the politician pays back the private parties—either directly, with embezzled funds, or with inflated government contracts (see, for example, here and here).

But sometimes a candidate might worry that she won’t be able to buy enough votes from voters who actually live in the district where the candidate is running. This is especially true when competing candidates are trying to buy votes. In a competitive district, a relatively small number of votes can swing the election, so politicians have an incentive to scrounge for extra votes. This, understandably, also drives up the “price” for votes in the district. In Colombia, one way that politicians have developed to increase the pool of voters they can “buy,” and hence keep the price down, is to pay voters to illegally register in a district other than the district where they actually live. (In Colombia, as in many countries, adult citizens may only register to vote in the district where they actually reside.) So, the politician pays these voters twice—first to illegally register in another district, and then to vote in that district for the politician—and on both registration day and election day the politician will arrange for the transportation of these non-resident voters to the district where the politician is running. This practice, known as electoral transhumance, is illegal, yet there have long been concerns that it is pervasive in many parts of the country.

In October 2015, Colombia introduced a new tool to fight this sort of electoral fraud. Using so-called “big data analytics,” the authorities were able to cross-reference the National Electoral Registry databases with the System for the Identification of Potential Beneficiaries of Social Programs (known as SISBEN), and as a result of these checks, nearly 1.6 million voter registrations to vote were declared void—a large number in a country with 33 million registered voters. That seems like a big win, and a nice example of how new technologies can help crack down on pervasive corruption (here, electoral corruption). But a closer look reveals that the picture is not as rosy as it first appears: Despite its good intentions, and some positive results, this purge of the voter rolls ended up disproportionately disenfranchising low-income voters. Continue reading

Even “Tough on Corruption” Proponents Should Worry about “Zero Tolerance” Rules

“Zero tolerance for corruption,” as Professor Stephenson suggested in a 2014 post, is an expression that can be construed in several different ways: from a general attitude that corruption should be considered “a high priority,” to an uncompromising policy mandating that “all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used.” In this post I will discuss another common, narrower understanding of “zero tolerance for corruption,” according to which corruption – at least in certain contexts – must always be addressed with a mandatory predetermined harsh sanction. A clear example of such a “zero tolerance” rule is the Colombian and Peruvian law demanding the instant termination of “any public contract tainted by corruption.” Another illustrative example is the EU’s directive mandating debarment from public contracting of any company convicted of offenses of corruption, fraud, or money laundering.

Granted, the potential deterrent value of mandatory harsh sanctions for corruption is substantial. A company aware that any conviction for corruption will inevitably incur severe penalties is more likely to be dissuaded from violating the law. Nevertheless, the costs of this “take no prisoners” approach to anticorruption may be much higher than the actual benefit. Thus, as Rick Messick recently showed, the law mandating termination of corruption-tainted public contracts has proven to have disastrous ramifications for the infrastructure in Peru and Colombia. As it turns out, not only has the nondiscretionary cancellation of corruption-tainted public contracts halted the advancement of existing infrastructure projects, but it has also deterred investors and developers from taking any part in such projects, for fear that they will be cancelled due to “the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.” Similarly, debarment is nothing less than “a death-sentence” for companies whose main business involves public contracts, and its mandatory imposition for even a relatively minor offense may be so draconian as to be counterproductive.

This kind of cost-benefit reasoning, though compelling to some, would not convince many proponents of an unequivocally “tough on corruption” stance. Many anticorruption hardliners believe in maximizing deterrence notwithstanding any associated costs. From this point of view, the end of deterring corruption justifies all necessary means. Yet even for those who take this view, it turns out that “zero tolerance” may not be the ideal approach. Supporters of “zero tolerance” rules assume that adoption of mandatory sanctions for corruption would guarantee that actors in the anticorruption system – judges, prosecutors, and legislators – will adhere to the “zero tolerance” ideal, and that such rules would be sustainable. But these decisionmakers in the anticorruption system may evade the application of “zero tolerance” rules where doing so would lead to sanctions perceived (rightly or wrongly) as patently absurd or unjust. In other words, a “zero tolerance” rule on the books does not guarantee that a “zero tolerance” policy would actually be implemented. Consider the various ways that actors in the anticorruption system may avoid triggering the mandatory sanctions for corruption:

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Colombia’s Harsh Criminal Penalties for Corruption Are an Illusion. Here’s How To Fix That.

Whenever a new corruption scandal comes to light, many politicians instinctively react with strong punitive rhetoric, and this rhetoric often translates into action, usually in the form of amendments to criminal codes that make penalties for corruption offenses harsher. Latin America supplies plenty of examples of this (see here, here, here, and here.) Yet despite this emphasis on punishment, many corrupt politicians avoid justice altogether, and in the rare cases where they are found guilty, many end up doing only short stints in comfortable detention centers. Consider, for example, Colombia, which has unusually good public data on corruption convictions and sentences thanks to the work by the Anticorruption Observatory of the Secretary for Transparency. According to this data, between 2008 and 2017, criminal courts in Colombia have convicted 2,178 individual defendants for corruption (51.2% for bribery, 23% for embezzlement, and the remainder for other corruption-related offenses), but only about one-quarter of these convicted defendants actually went to prison. Approximately half of these defendants received suspended sentences, while another quarter were sentenced to house arrest. And of those who did go to prison, the time served was only about 22 months on average, much lower than the penalties on the books for corruption offenses. No wonder many Colombians believe the criminal justice system is too lenient.

The reason that actual Colombian sentences end up being so light, despite the penalties on the books being so heavy, is that Colombian law includes a set of provisions that allow for a variety of sentence reductions if certain conditions are met. For example, a defendant who accepts guilt can receive a 50% reduction in his prison term. Inmates may also reduce their prison term through work, with very generous terms: An inmate reduces his sentence by one day for every two days of ordinary work (8 hours of work per day), or for every four hours of work as a teacher. An inmate can also reduce his sentence through in-prison education, with  six hours of study translating into one day of sentence reduction. Furthermore, once an inmate has served 60% of his sentence, he can petition for release for good behavior. 

This excessive leniency needs to be addressed, not only in corruption cases but in all cases. Specifically, Colombia should adopt the following revisions to its criminal laws: Continue reading

Video: CAPI Panel on “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America”

Recent developments in the fight against corruption across Latin America seem to have prompted an increasing number of conferences, workshops, and similar events that focus on this issue. (I was able to participate in one such event at Rice University’s Baker Center a few months back.) Last month, Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) held another, similar event that may be of interest to those who follow these developments (indeed, perhaps of even greater interest to those who haven’t been following them, but would like to get up to speed). The panel, entitled “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America: Perspectives from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico,” was moderated by Daniel Alonso (Managing Director of Exiger), and featured four senior lawyers from the region: Eloy Rizzo Neto (Brazil), Gustavo Morales Oliver (Argentina), Diego Sierra (Mexico), and Daniel Rodriguez (Colombia). The video of the discussion can be found here. And here’s a quick overview of the discussion, with corresponding time markers for the video: Continue reading

The Consequences of Zero Tolerance

The chart above shows what happens when policy is based on a slogan. In this case “Zero Tolerance.” Procurement rules in both Peru and Colombia require that any public contract tainted by corruption be terminated immediately. As the Brazilian investigation into construction giant Odebrecht unfolded, it became clear that many projects to build highways, power plants, and other infrastructure projects in the two countries had been corruptly awarded.  Authorities in both countries then did what the law told them they must: cancel the contracts.

Most large infrastructure contracts in Peru and Colombia are in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), and the immediate termination of a PPP can be enormously costly.  Not only to the firms that paid bribes to secure the contract, but to lenders, suppliers, and the hundreds of other contractors on the project who had no knowledge or involvement in the bribery scheme.  The greatest costs are likely be felt by the citizens of Colombia and Peru.  For as the chart shows, the consequence of zero tolerance is a halt to new spending for roads, power, and other essential facilities as investors and project developers shy away from the risk future contracts will be terminated for the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.   

Colombians and Peruvians may today be proud their governments are so tough on corruption neither one will tolerate a speck of it in any contract for infrastructure.  Tomorrow citizens of the two countries may have a different view: when power shortages mean the lights won’t come on and the failure to build new roads and maintain old ones produces horrendous traffic jams.  

Last week the World Bank hosted a presentation by Inter-American Development Bank staff where the issue of why “zero tolerance” is a good slogan but a bad policy was examined and means for addressing infrastructure corruption without producing the results shown in the chart was discussed.  A paper the IDB presenters recently published, the source of the figure above and the basis of their presentation, is here.   A video of the session here.  

Putting Anticorruption Up for a Vote: The Challenge of Designing Effective National Referendums

One of the biggest challenges in the fight against corruption is getting people in power to reform the very system from which they currently benefit. Over the past year, we have seen anticorruption advocates in Colombia and Peru attempt to bypass this hurdle using national popular referenda on anticorruption measures.

In Peru, the referendum on December 9, 2018 came on the heels of the massive Odebrecht scandal, which implicated all of Peru’s living former Presidents. Current President Vizcarra and his supporters originally proposed a referendum containing three anticorruption reforms: banning the immediate reelection of legislators and executives, reforming the system by which prosecutors and judges are appointed, and instituting new campaign finance regulations. The required legislative approval of the referendum took several months, and during this process the legislature added another proposal (not supported by President) to create a second legislative chamber. In the end, the three original reforms passed, and the proposed bicameral legislature failed after a successful “Yes, yes, yes, no” campaign by the President and his supporters.

Colombia’s referendum also came in response to the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. On August 28, 2018, Colombia had a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures that aimed to improve transparency in governance, institute legislative term limits, and cut legislator pay. Six of the seven measures proposed in the referendum had previously failed in the lower house of the Colombian legislature, but 99% of voters approved all seven measures in the referendum. Though the total number of citizens voting fell just short of the quorum required for the referendum to be binding, President Duque convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018. The President proposed eight measures inspired by the referendum to the legislature, but momentum has stalled as legislators look to modify the proposals or avoid voting on them. With no clear deadline for if and when they will be passed, their fate is now uncertain.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Colombian referendum was not without its faults, specifically with respect to the inclusion of counterproductive retributive measures. More generally, while a national referendum may seem like an ideal way to bypass conflicted legislators, a referendum poses serious three risks that need to be addressed if one hopes to use this lawmaking mechanism to combat corruption:

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